It was almost midnight at the warehouse on the darkened street in downtown Seattle, but inside, the lights were on and the noise was deafening. The air was filled with glitter and sweat, and enough sparkles, spandex and makeup to equip a thousand beauty pageants was instead stretched across the meaty flesh of bearded men slamming into each other like walruses surrounded by a throng of slathering fans. It felt like a grimy rock club, but instead of a stage there was a rope-lined ring, and instead of a band, there were wrestlers.
Welcome to Seattle’s underappreciated, yet genuinely entertaining world of indie wrestling. You may not have known this scene existed, but you’ve definitely met the performers — they’re your accountant, your colleague, the guy on the radio, even your hairdresser. And no matter how you think you feel about wrestling, a late night at one of these all-out tights-and-tattoos brawls will body-slam your former perspective into gleeful submission.
I must admit that I am not a fan of wrestling, particularly not the WWE with its glossy, booming, alienating arena atmosphere. But Seattle’s semipro indie-wrestling scene is a violent, balletic, campy, burlesque soap opera, a mishmash of improv comedy and lucha libre and Marvel comics, and I even found it oddly sexy in a chaotic, punk-rock way as, cheap beer in hand, I watched the bizarre spectacle of thickly built men and women flipping and tumbling with the grace of gymnasts while wearing eyeliner and leotards. This did not feel like pro wrestling as I had always known and disdained it. On this recent Friday night, the scene unfolding throughout 3-2-1 Battle, Seattle’s longest-running underground wrestling show, seemed downright … well … tongue-in-cheek.
Matches were sometimes one-on-one, sometimes in tag-team groups, with interludes of posturing and sequined jacket-flinging beforehand. Like scaring off a bear, wrestling is as much about posturing, trash talking and arm spreading as it is about pretending to fight. Then the body-slamming begins. Wrestlers hit the floor with a bang and launch themselves off the ropes to latch onto their opponents like monkeys, while always finding a way to mug for the audience in between moments of inflicting “pain.”
The million-dollar question is, of course, is it real? But even though that hot-button question is the easiest, surest way to pick a fight with a WWE fanatic, the performers at 3-2-1 Battle don’t bother to pretend.
“The majority of our folks are out for the weekend bar scene,” said Steve West, co-owner and head honcho at 3-2-1 Battle (and a wrestler himself). “People who watch wrestling on television aren’t, for the most part, the people who come to our shows at all.”
“We’re all adults here,” said longtime wrestler Bill Bates, who performs as an ’80s rock-star character called “Eddie Van Glam.” “We all know that this is a choreographed physical ballet.”
And as it turns out, that frank admission was an essential factor to Seattle semipro wrestling’s very existence. The earliest incarnation of 3-2-1 Wrestling dates back to around 2003, when the organization now called 3-2-1 Battle was a loose, unlicensed (but enthusiastic) rabble known as Seattle Semi-Pro, rolling around on foam mats on a stage at a local gay bar. The shows were considered illegal underground “fighting” and were sometimes shut down by the police.
A 2015 documentary “Bodyslam: Revenge of the Banana,” in which Bates is a starring character, takes a very “Hard Knocks”-style look at this journey.
“There were times when we were performing that we were prepared to be arrested,” said Bates, who had some heartbreakingly tearful moments in “Revenge of the Banana.” “We didn’t care. We were expressing ourselves.”
In 2017, the state finally decided that it bore no real resemblance to prizefighting and legalized it under a “theatrical wrestling school” license created for the purpose.
Indie wrestling is truly a labor of love — it pays little, and even while practicing and working out almost daily for a show that goes up every other week, all these people, like so many other performing artists, have day jobs. Bates is a hairstylist, Drew Wayne teaches marketing. Performers are more like theater folk than jocks, though like any athletic endeavor, wrestling can be hard on the body, and if wrestlers are considered actors, they’re certainly doing all their own stunts.
Much of a wrestler’s success can come from creating a memorable persona. The costumes are ludicrous — even raunchy; Bates’ “Van Glam” rocker persona is part David Bowie, part Sid Vicious, and he sometimes wrestles with one leg stretched into bright spandex and the opposing butt-cheek encased in only a wisp of fishnet — an appropriate get-up for a man who, in real life, is a former champion burlesque dancer.
The night I was there, I saw all kinds of neon capes and masks with concepts attached, but a few truly stood out — the guy wrestling as the “Son of Jesus,” the guy wrestling as the Devil, and the evening’s headliner and champion, Wayne, performing as “Pitfall Jones,” an Indiana Jones incarnation that includes all the trappings of fedora, shoulder bag and safari boots, but no shirt.
“I have this whole teacher shtick and sometimes when I do promos I do it as Professor Jones,” said Wayne, a former stand-up comedian and occasional actor who, in real life, is an actual teacher. “So I have a professor following. I’m coming out with a mug next show that says ‘Suck my Ph.D.’ ”
The story arcs, played out over weeks or months, fluctuate according to whether the audience loves you or loves to hate you, and both Jones and Van Glam have done turns as hero characters (“Baby Faces”) and villains (“Heels”).
West, though, is an unabashed and enthusiastic bad guy.
“My character is a jerk, and I’ll take every shortcut in the book,” said West, who wrestles as a gothlike menace called “Simply the Best Steve West.” “Before I go through the curtain, I line my nostrils with Vicks VapoRub, and I shoot snot at my enemies.”
Expect a lot of blue humor at 3-2-1’s shows, which are always 21-plus; Van Glam’s secret weapon involves beating people to submission with his butt.
Intrigued wrestlers-to-be can sign up for 3-2-1’s classes at Evolv Fitness on Republican Street (roughly $10 per class, or less with a membership) and performers complete at least a year of training before they’re allowed on stage. And while 3-2-1 comprises mostly guys, it both encourages female wrestlers and allows for cross-gender matches. In September, it even put on its first “Battle of the Sexes.”
On Friday, Oct. 18, there will be the annual Halloween show at Evolv Fitness — what that will involve, I can’t even imagine, since they’re already wearing costumes. Maybe the audience will come dressed up too, further blurring the distinction between the maniacs on stage and the maniacs in the seats.
And as I stood there surrounded by all the pumping fists and raised beer cans, I realized that regular bouts of unhinged screaming might be just what Seattle’s passive-aggressive population needs.
On one side, you have the slathering fans whose catharsis is no less real for being laced with amused irony. In the ring stand the pratfalling wrestlers whose theatrical grimaces are rendered believable by authentic sweat and the flavor of actual pain.
“Fans are in on the joke, we’re all kind of in it together,” said West.
Though the audience knows the outcome is predetermined, the performers still endeavor to make them believe in the pathos, the agony, the grudges, and the triumph.
Sometime during that three-hour show, it became clear that neither the performers nor the fans need it to be competitive for it to be, well, real.
CORRECTION: Referee Aubrey “Gearl Hebner” Edwards’ stage name was incorrect in an early version of this story.
3-2-1 Battle wrestling shows run every other Friday at Evolv Fitness. The next show is Horror Business, Friday, Oct. 18; Evolv Fitness, 1317 Republican St., Seattle; $10, 21+; 321battle.com